If you’re wondering how to exhaust an interpreter within an inch of their life, you’ve come to the right place! In all seriousness, there are some common ways to make the interpretation experience more exhausting for everyone, and these are an example of 9 behaviors to avoid if you’d like your experience to be a pleasant one. All of these elements are cumulative: the more you can incorporate, the more drained and exhausted your interpreter will emerge.
Before the Conversation:
- Pick a technical topic of conversation. Preferably with plenty of numbers and technical jargon. Medication names and doses work well, but tracking calories, training on medical equipment, new diagnoses or treatment plans will do just as well.
- Include a bilingual (or semi-bilingual) person in the conversation, and focus on them. When you’ve chosen a nice, tricky subject that you’re very comfortable with and can rattle off relatively quickly, choose your conversation partner. Make sure at least one person in the encounter is mostly, if not fully bilingual. Spend time talking only to this person. Ideally, you should have multiple people that need to participate in the conversation, and at least one of them should be bilingual. The bilingual person should have an indispensable speaking role in the conversation, to ensure you hit the maximum level of difficulty for your interpreter.
- Add distractions. Any environmental distraction is great. Think loud background noise (TVs work well), children doing their own thing, etc. Some real whammies can be an additional responsibility that can pull on the interpreter’s attention. An example could be, a second job role in the environment (like an interpreter who’s also the patient’s nurse), or a pager that the interpreter is required to answer immediately if it goes off. Facemasks are especially great for this because they muffles the speaker (so it’s hard to hear and they have to ask for lots of repetition) and the interpreter’s speech (so they have to speak louder than usual). Really, any physically or emotionally distracting element will help you toward your goal, and the more you can pile on at once, the better.
During the Conversation:
If you’ve done a good job picking a difficult subject, at least one good environmental distraction, and at least two conversation partners, one of whom is bilingual, you’re well on your way to an exhausted, completely spent interpreter, but you’re not there yet!
- Speak mainly to the bilingual person, in English. Don’t pause for interpretation. When you speak with them, do not pause for your interpreter to catch the other, non-bilingual person up on the conversation. Let the interpreter figure out how to handle this.
- If they choose to interpret simultaneously while you’re speaking, great! It will add to the auditory confusion and speed up their mental exhaustion.
- If they choose to interrupt you after a while, that’s good too. You will have cornered them into repeating large chunks of conversation, as much as (or really, more than) they can manage.
- Make sure you also suddenly switch between listeners, so that if the interpreter was not working in simultaneous mode, they will have a backlog of things to say before the limited English proficiency speaker can understand the comment or question. If this happens, interrupt the interpreter after the first sentence and try to continue the conversation, to force them to interrupt themselves and their carefully hoarded memory of what you said 3 minutes ago to tell you they’re not done saying what you said yet.
- Interrupt the interpreter. There are many great ways to do this. The beautiful thing about it is that no matter what, it forces the interpreter into some difficult choices and mental gymnastics. Here are some options:
- Say something long. Before the interpreter stops talking, say more things. They’ll have to either add that to their mental load or decide to interrupt you to stand up for themselves.
- Get someone to come into the room and have a side-conversation with you about something completely unrelated, preferably information that is confidential or very technical. The interpreter will struggle with their ethical responsibility to repeat everything vs the inappropriateness of doing that.
- If the interpreter requests a moment to look up a word, talk over them. That way they have to interrupt you or try to remember everything from before, plus learn the word they didn’t know, plus remember the new thing you say. It’ll really make their head spin!
- When you’ve said something long, and the interpreter is working on repeating it, have your conversation partner respond to the first part of what the interpreter says (i.e. what you said several minutes ago). This way the interpreter will have to interrupt their repetition of the carefully remembered conversation to manage the new information. They might do this by asking the person to wait, or they might try to remember the comment for later, once they’re done repeating what you said. Either way, their exhaustion is mounting, and you’re all doing an excellent job.
- Emotional Content To make things extra challenging for your interpreter, add lots of emotion to your very technical jargon. Get heated, and talk fast! Bonus: be rude or micro-aggressive. The heightened emotion will make all the speakers speak faster, making it even harder for your interpreter to keep up. It will also force the interpreter to begin sensing and transmitting more intense emotions, while keeping their own emotions about what’s going on in check.
- Make it a long one. You should work your interpreter like this for over 30 minutes, ideally more than an hour – two is great.
- No Breaks! Lastly, give your interpreter absolutely no breaks. None. If you have several people lined up to speak, or converse with one another, make sure they all go one right after the other. Don’t let your interpreter wait in the hallway, or take a breath, or drink water, or sit down. Definitely don’t give them any time to check their phone or eat a snack. This will heighten their exhaustion tenfold, so it’s very important to keep this in the mix
After the Conversation:
- Make them keep working after the encounter. There are two ways to do this. The first method of prolonging their mental work: ask if they can stay for another conversation, and promise it’ll “be really quick” – or don’t, it’s really up to you. Either way, your request should cause your interpreter some dismay while they try to figure out their schedule, the agency’s rules, and how to explain how exhausted they are right now. The second method, if you’re feeling gentle or don’t have another conversation lined up, just force them to chitchat politely. After the encounter is over, when they’re looking dazed and maybe a little sick, engage them in some small pleasantries. Thank them for their time, for example. Ask them about holiday plans, compliment their clothing, or commiserate about COVID, or anything else you like. Doing this when they have no mental reserves left will torq the emotional exhaustion up a level by seeming pleasant, but draining them even more and leaving them irritated without being quite sure why.
If you can successfully gather all of these elements into one interpreting session, you will have thoroughly expended every ounce of emotional, mental, and physical (yes! Even physical!) energy your interpreter had for the rest of the day. They will try to recover, but the rest of what they produce that day, including the rest of their interpreting sessions, will be sub par. They will feel as if they had done a training session for an Olympic sport. Their tongue will feel heavy, their jaw will be tired, and they might feel themselves staring vaguely off into the distance, unable to concentrate. They will likely feel foggy and have trouble finding the right words for the simplest things for the next 3-6 hours, and if you did a very good job and got an interpreter who doesn’t have good emotional hygiene skills, they will be both easily irritated and find it hard to re-calibrate from small emotional upsets for at least several hours. If you can do this consistently, that effect will multiply over days, weeks, and months, and you can even burn them out!
And, if you’d rather help make your interpreter, make them more productive, and improve the quality of their work, stay tuned for our list of 10 ways to make your interpreter’s life easier.
Kate Dzubinski is a Certified Medical Interpreter whose background draws from the southern US, Austria, and northeastern Spain. She grew up speaking four languages, and currently works as a hospital interpreter, continuing education developer and lead facilitator in the Interpreter Training department at ALTA Language Services.